Presbyterian leaders voted Thursday to allow non-celibate gays in committed relationships to serve as clergy, approving the first of two policy changes that could make their church one of the most gay-friendly major Christian denominations in the U.S.
But the vote isn't a final stamp of approval for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) or its more than 2 million members.
Delegates voted during the church's general assembly in Minneapolis, with 53 percent approving the more liberal policy on gay clergy. A separate vote is expected later Thursday on whether to change the church's definition of marriage from between "a man and a woman" to between "two people."
Such changes must be approved by a majority of the church's 173 U.S. presbyteries before they can take effect. Two years ago, the assembly voted to liberalize the gay clergy policy — but it died last year when 94 of the presbyteries voted against it.
Under current church policy, Presbyterians are only eligible to become clergy, deacons or elders if they are married or celibate. The new policy would strike references to sexuality altogether in favor of candidates committed to "joyful submission to worship of Christ."
"What this is about is making sure we uphold what Christ taught us, to not judge one another," said Dan Roth, a church elder from Sacramento. "We will no longer have to tell our brothers and sisters in Christ that they lie about who they are."
But critics said the move toward more liberal policy would simply create disputes and bad feelings in Presbyterian churches nationwide.
"If we are once again conflicted with this question in our presbyteries, all the air will be sucked out of the room," said the Rev. William Reid Dalton III of Burlington, N.C. "All the other things, the important issues we need to consider will not considered."
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is ranked the 10th-largest church in the U.S. with 2.8 million members, according to the National Council of Churches' 2010 "Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches." The church's media materials tout 2.1 million members.
Several major Christian denominations have voted in recent years to allow non-celibate gays to serve as clergy if they are in committed relationships. Among them are the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the U.S. Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ.
Benjamin Wind, a nonvoting young adult delegate to the assembly from Syracuse, N.Y., said Presbyterians of his generation greatly favor the change.
"The world has become a more tolerant and accepting place," Wind said. "I've grown up with gay and lesbian friends, teachers, even spiritual leaders. They stand proud as people who deserve the same rights as all human beings."
Leaders of the Presbyterian Renewal Network, a conservative group within the church, said allowing non-celibate gay people to serve as clergy would amount to "removing the moral standard for our ministers."
Other delegates warned that liberalizing such policies would put the Presbyterian church in opposition to its cohorts in other parts of the world, where the denomination is seeing much of its new growth. Delegates also are considering removing the threat of punishment for clergy who perform same-sex marriages in states where it's legal.
"I fear for the partnerships we have built around the globe," said the Rev. D. Matthew Stith, pastor of Community Presbyterian Church in West Fargo, N.D.
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): http://www.pcusa.org/
© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.